Monday, March 18, 2013

And the Court Has Spoken ... Again

Sometimes for fun I like to read court opinions of employment law cases, because the darndest things happen in the workplace, and truth truly is stranger than fiction. Even though I’m not a lawyer and don’t understand all the finer points presented in these documents, I can get the gist, and that’s good enough for purposes of my entertainment.

Today I read the court’s opinion of Connelly v. Steel Valley School District.

The plaintiff, Patrick Connelly, a Pennsylvania teacher, filed a complaint against his employer, the Steel Valley School District, arguing that the district’s policy of determining new-hire compensation interfered with his right to travel interstate and is a violation of the Constitution.

What, you say?

Well, Steel Valley's new-hire salary policy credited teachers with in-state experience more generously than teachers with out-of-state experience. In 2006, when Connelly was hired, he had been teaching for nine years—in Maryland. So Steel Valley gave him credit for only one year.

As each year passed, one can only assume that Connelly got madder and madder thinking about his truncated wages, because in 2011 he filed suit, claiming that his employer’s policy had set him back $22,000.

The case was initially dismissed, with the court stating that the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t apply “because the classification alleged is based on location of teaching experience, not residency.”

Connelly appealed, hence the opinion I read today.

While evaluating the appeal, the court looked at “whether Steel Valley's experience-based classification penalized Connelly's fundamental right to be treated like other Pennsylvania citizens.”

It concluded that:

Thus, Connelly is being treated no differently than lifelong residents of Pennsylvania. He does not allege that residents of Pennsylvania who taught out of state for nine years prior to working at Steel Valley are given more credit than was he for their comparable out-of-state teaching experience. Nor does Connelly sufficiently rebut Steel Valley's argument that a teacher who resides in Pennsylvania but teaches in a neighboring state would be subject to the same classification as Connelly, should that teacher later decide to seek employment with Steel Valley.

The court also looked at whether there were rational reasons for Steel Valley’s policy and concluded that there were.

It is reasonable to assume that teachers who have more experience working within Pennsylvania schools have greater familiarity with these regulations and the goals they are expected to accomplish. Beyond familiarity with the regulations, it is also reasonable to assume that teachers with more experience working within the system would have a better grasp on what methods are most successful in achieving the goals the DOE has established. Therefore, a school district may rationally place a premium on teachers who have more experience working within the Pennsylvania school system in order to achieve the legitimate goal of an efficient and effective public education system.

So, as you can guess, this case was dismissed again.

If you’re weird like I am and want to read the entire opinion, you can do so here.

You have to give Connelly’s lawyers points for creative thinking. This is a hell of an argument. (At least this non-lawyer thinks it was pretty clever.) And, I feel kind of bad for Connelly. Teachers don’t make a ton of money, and they put up with a lot of junk, so I can sort of understand his (again presumed) irritation at making less money than another teacher with the same years of experience. Although the court upheld Steel Valley’s view that not all experience is created equal, Connelly clearly disagreed.

I’d love to know what hasn’t been written about this case. Did Connelly know about the policy when he accepted the position? Was he still working at the school when he filed his complaint? (Awkward.) Is he still working there? Is he relieved this case is finally over? Is he freaked out thinking he’ll never get another teaching job?

Forgetting about what the court decided for a moment, what do you think? Is Steel Valley’s policy fair? Is this suit further evidence that people will sue about anything? Or do you admire Connelly for standing up for himself?

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